Friday, February 17, 2012
Thursday, February 16, 2012
I have a photo from the summer of 1971, which we spent at my grandparents' farm in northern Wisconsin. We were living in Spain at the time, but came back for my uncle's wedding.
There were always animals at the farm. There was always at least one big, gentle dog.
My brother and I are standing in front of a tractor, a hay wagon, and what appears to be a binder. I am wearing my Hee-Haw short overalls, which I loved, and my hair is a white blonde that will never again re-appear on my head, at least not without significant chemical interference. The overalls are too small and too short and are tight against my chubby thighs. I realize now that chubby thighs have always been with me and will always be with me. I guess there are worse problems to have than having too much to eat.
My brother, with his home haircut, which indeed looks like someone inverted a bowl over his head and cut around the edges and he looked like all the other boys - when did people start taking their kids to the beauty shop? did they do it back then and we were just out of it? or is that a new thing? - is wearing a gray t-shirt, barely tucked into his jeans, which are held up with a very thick black belt with a big buckle.
It was the early 70s, after all.
We are each holding a tiny black kitten.
We rescued those kittens.
Well, my uncles did.
We were at the farm for the summer. What a great place for a kid to spend a summer. I have always felt so sorry for people who didn't have farmer grandparents. What did they do when they visited their grandparents?
Primo's grandfather worked in a factory in a big city. "He taught me to play pool," Primo says. I suppose that's OK, but it's not the same as being on a farm.
We got to ride along on the hay wagon as my grandfather and my two uncles, who were still in high school, baled hay. One of the reasons that farm kids do well in non-farm jobs is that they have done really hard work their entire lives and they are used to it. After getting up every morning to milk the cows before going to school, after shoveling composting manure, and after baling hay in the hot summer sun, everything else is a piece of cake.
We went fishing in the creek on the south side of the farm. We picked wild raspberries. If you have ever wondered why raspberries are so expensive, I can tell you why: it is a pain in the neck to get to them in the tangled, thorny brambles.
We played in the attic where my grandmother had her bottles of homemade root beer. We watched cows being inseminated by the vet and calves being born. We got to wean the calves - you put your hand in a bucket of milk and let the calf suck your hand. You keep moving your hand closer and closer to the bucket and voila! the calf understands.
We played in the haymow, which was full of scratchy hay and dust and peacock poop on the crossbeams (I guess peacocks can fly), but my grandfather had installed a rope swing for us, so we would climb to the top of the hay, grab the swing, and jump, then release on top of the pile of chaff. Which is also very scratchy.
My grandmother welcomed help in the kitchen. Other photos show me and my siblings playing in the big drawer of flour. This was when I was only five, the year my dad was in Vietnam and my mom got an apartment not far from her mom and dad's farm. We spent a lot of time at the farm that year. My grandmother, who had to have been somewhat drill sergeant-ish to rear seven children and seven foster children, along with growing and canning all her own vegetables, baking bread almost daily, and sewing almost all the clothes worn in the house, was rather mellow by this point and did not seem to mind the flour all over the floor. I sure would, but she liked having kids around.
The farm was not big. The barn held only about 200 cows. There was a silo on the east side, a cooling shed for the milk on the north side, and a machine shop where my grandfather did all the work on the tractors, etc, on the west side. Across from the barn a granary. Between the barn and the granary was my grandmother's flower garden, which was glorious. When she and my grandfather sold the farm and built a small house in town in the late 70s, she took many of the flowers with her and planted them at the new house. When she moved into the nursing home two years before she died, my mom dug up all the iris bulbs. I have some of them in my garden now.
Between the granary and the house was the garage and the outhouse. They got indoor plumbing when my mom was 12, so the outhouse wasn't used any more.
Can you imagine having to use an outhouse in a northern Wisconsin winter?
I cannot. I do not want to.
I can sort of imagine, though. The year we moved back from Spain to the US, we spent several weeks with my grandparents, who were renting another farmhouse while their house in town was being built. They had already sold their farm that summer.
This was December and the house we were staying in did not have any source of heat, I don't think, other than the wood burning stove in the kitchen. My sister and I shared a bed in one of the upstairs bedrooms and we had to pile it high with blankets to get warm enough. In the morning, we got dressed under the blankets before we emerged into the cold, cold room and ran downstairs to be next to the stove. There was, however, indoor plumbing. It had to have been cold, though. How can you pee when you are cold? It's hard. I must have waited to get to school every day before I did anything. Yes, school. My parents enrolled us in the small Catholic school in town that my dad had attended when he was a boy. My cousins were there and we had a grand time. Lunch was made every day in the church basement by some of the church ladies, who fed us homemade bread and produce they had canned themselves. For a quarter. A QUARTER.
Now, everything is falling down. The barn is nothing but a pile of weathered planks. The silo has been gone for years. I get sick to my stomach every time I drive past the place and see the neglect. It's good my grandparents are not alive to see this. Three generations to build the place, three generations who got their living from this farm, six children who all died of diphtheria in seven days buried behind the garden - my great-great grandmother's kids, I think, and now it's rubble.
I have photos of my siblings and me in the bathtub in that relatively new bathroom. Pink tile. Hot pink tile. I liked it. I like bright colors. It goes with my love of animal prints. I had an apartment in Houston with a teal bathroom - teal tile, teal tub, teal toilet.
I loved it. What's wrong with a non-white bathroom?
The house was big enough, I suppose. The kids had to share a room, boys in one, girls in another. There was a spare room downstairs next to my grandparents' room. That was where my great-grandmother was living when I was little.
So. Back to the kittens.
There were always animals at the farm. There was always at least one big, gentle dog.
"No, not a working dog," my mom remembers when I ask her. There were no animals to be herded. The kids got the cows, not the dog. "They were decorative. And to eat the table scraps."
There is a photo of me at three, beaming as I reach up to put my arms around Captain's neck. Captain was a big collie and he was beautiful. I like big dogs. It's the little yappy dogs I don't like. That and any dog that sticks his nose where it doesn't belong. Manners, please.
There were barn cats. Not pet cats. But barn cats. They were working animals. The cats had a job to do: keep the rats and mice out of the hay and grain.
One day, as we were playing in the hayhow, my brother and I heard a lot of meowing. Desperate meowing. We couldn't find the kittens, so got our uncles involved. They tracked the sound to the west side of the haymow, against the machine shop wall, halfway into the hay. Looked like the mama cat had made a little nest deep in the hay.
That was when they remembered that they had run over a cat while they were mowing hay. It's not something you can avoid: the grass is tall and you can't see animals that might be hiding there. Rabbits meet their maker this way all the time.
They couldn't get to the kittens from the haymow, so they pulled out some of the boards on the machine shed wall. The kittens were frantic and wild, scratching and fighting as my uncles pulled them out.
They were tiny black fluffballs with razor-sharp claws. They had never seen humans before and were scared to death. But they were hungry, so lapped at the bowl of milk we gave them, shuddering as they drank and watching us in fear, even though we had made a nice box for them in the corner of the kitchen and thought we were staying far enough away. Kittens have a good instinct and know that human children are not always to be trusted.
We eventually got them calm enough that we could hold them, but they didn't really like it. They tolerated it, but were always planning their escape. They were wild animals and they knew it. Once they figured out how to get food on their own, they were gone. But we saved them from certain death.